I guess I really shouldn’t call a fifteen minute drive to Hillsborough a road trip, but hey, I was feeling carefree as I headed north on Route 206 with my friend Betty early the other evening. And I was headed for the best Mexican food in the area.
It had been several months (maybe six?) since I’d been to my favorite Mexican restaurant, La Costeñita. (My 2014 Packet review is here.) This time I had owner Alicia Arango’s sublime chile relleño on my mind. Her’s is not the typical cheese stuffed poblano pepper I used to make myself. Instead, her version is straight from Oaxaca, a smokey dried pasilla pepper, plump with a succulent filling of shredded pork mixed with almonds, raisins, olives and more. It really is something! (Even Rick Bayless’ recipe doesn’t specify the dried pasilla, he uses poblanos instead.) I remember Ms. Arango saying her sister back home in Oaxaca ships them to her, and while I do see dried pasillas on amazon.com, it’s hard to tell if they’re large enough to be reconstituted, stuffed, battered and fried. (The ones I see in regular markets are too skinny.)
We started with a plate of freshly made guacamole and tortilla chips. And, since we aren’t usually soda drinkers (although she does have those interesting tropical fruit flavors), she suggested her own beverage of cantaloupe juice. We each had one, and even though cantaloupe is not a favorite of mine, this was delicious. Now I know what to do with a cantaloupe – drink it! (They are BYO, so you are welcome to bring beer or tequila, or whatever you like.)
I had also planned on trying a tamale de rajas, which means strips (“ropes”) of poblano pepper (tamales are a mere $2 each!). The filling of stewed peppers, onion, and tomato was ready, but had not yet been made into tamales, so she provided us with a sampling dish of just the filling and some cubes of the Oaxacan cheese that also go in these. Oh my, that was fantastic, and I could see spooning this on eggs in the morning, too – huevos con rajas.
Meals here come with warm corn tortillas inside a folded embroidered napkin, but with all the other food, we did not indulge in those. (That definitely makes me a gringo; I suspect that no self-respecting Mexican would forgo the tortillas with a meal that didn’t otherwise include tortillas, just like the Chinese and rice.) But even with our restraint, neither of us could finish our relleños which were flanked with plenty of rice and black beans, so leftovers were packed to go.
Dessert was out of the question (she usually has flan, tres leches cake, etc.), but since La Costeñita doubles as a grocery, I did bring home a container of refrigerated mole sauce (not her own, but similar she assured me), a package of that soft Oaxacan cheese, a can of dulce de leche (to experiment with), and a couple of avocados. I plan to buy chicken thighs to stew and serve with the mole. There was fresh made chorizo too, but I think I have some in my freezer already.
La Costeñita has just a handful of colorfully painted tables. While we and a few other diners ate, there was a steady stream of customers for take out. While their makeup was a cross-section of society, many appeared to be Hispanic, and I can only imagine they are glad for a place like this with such a friendly, vivacious owner and inexpensive plentiful food that tastes like home.